Skeleton reveals ancient Greek brain surgery

Greek archaeologists have uncovered a rare find, the skeletal remains of a young woman who appears to have undergone brain surgery – nearly 1,800 years ago. The bones, which date from the third century, were found in one of more than 1,000 graves excavated in an ancient cemetery near the city of Veria in Greece.

"We interpret the find as a case of complicated surgery which only a trained and specialised doctor could have attempted," Ioannis Graikos, the archaeologist who led the dig, told the Associated Press. "She probably did not survive, as the wound was very large and there are no signs of healing around the edges."

A photograph of the skeleton, released by the Greek Ministry of Culture this week, shows a large hole in the skull. Experts believe the operation would have been attempted to repair damage from a blow to the head. "It is likely the patient would have been conscious, and it would certainly have hurt a bit," said Simon Mays, a human skeletal biologist for English Heritage. "Early surgical manuals show patients having brain surgery before anaesthetic would most probably have been pinned down to stop them writhing around."

The skeleton was among other bones discovered in the two cemeteries at the Veria site, which dated from the third century BC to the third century AD. While many were surrounded by gold and bronze jewellery, pottery, coins and other trinkets such as glass bottles, the woman's body was in an empty grave. The modern-day city of Veria, where the third-century bones were discovered, was built on the ruins of the ancient city of Beroea, which was ruled by the Roman Empire from 168BC.

Roman physicians regularly attempted a form of brain surgery called "trepanation" – which involved drilling a hole through a patient's skull – as a way of relieving pressure to the brain and curing headaches. But the methods that were used on the young woman seem to be evidence of a different technique.

"The sloping sides of the hole suggest that the surgeon used a sharp implement to scrape away at the bone – scratching a deep gully in the skull until he could prise that section of bone away," Mr Mays explained. This was less likely to cause brain injury than other techniques... such as drilling or hammering."

Although such methods may seem primitive, experts point out that some techniques are very similar to those used in modern neurosurgery – just minus the anaesthetic and antiseptic.

"I examined remains... where a person with a cranial fracture had been operated on. It looked like the doctor had removed fragments of bone and relieved pressure on the brain in the same way as they would if you fractured your skull now," said Mr Mays.

A 6,000-year old skeleton discovered in Cappadocia, Turkey, is thought to be the earliest example of brain surgery. Archaeologists have uncovered Neolithic skeletons – dating from the late Stone Age period, roughly 1,000 years later – in Ukraine and Germany, which bear the marks of similar procedures.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: General Manager

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This provider of global logisti...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager - £70,000 OTE

£35000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Manager (Vice President...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Marketing Executive i...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable